I had been waiting for a screener of The Secret Path to land in my Inbox the moment I heard about this project. I have been a casual listener of The Tragically Hip for more years than I care to admit and I am also a big fan of artist Jeff Lemire’s work. I first took note of Lemire’s work with Essex County, a finalist for Canada Reads in 2011. His style is uniquely his own. Once you are familiar with his work, there is no doubt in your mind when you come across his other projects.
I was going into this preview with some trepidation. I am a firm believer that as Canadians—as we move together through this process of reconciliation—mainstream or non-Indigenous peoples must let Indigenous voices tell their own stories. For too long, non-Indigenous peoples have told them, using those tales to their own ends, often against the very people for whom they belonged.
Lemire had recently created Equinox for the comic Justice League United, based upon Shannen Koostachin, and prior to publishing it he received permission from the community of Attiwapiskat. That Lemire was on board for the telling of the Chanie Wenjack story eased a few of my concerns.
The animation opens with a brief introduction from Gord Downie as he travelled to Ogoki, Ont., to meet with Wenjack’s family. We meet his sister Pearl, who appears delighted Chanie’s story is finally being told, and bemused, “Who would have thought? Tragically Hip?” doing so.
The story itself is presented in a series of short clips, short vignettes if you will. Each features a different component of Chanie’s lonely and desperate escape from Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School and his fruitless quest to reach his home. Each segment a different song sung by Downie, frontman for The Tragically Hip.
The first song shows memories of home, with Chanie and his family drawn in a warm colour palette in warm tones. This is the only sequence to feature those warm sunny colours. Throughout the rest of the animation, Lemire sticks to the cooler blue in his artistry reflecting the conditions Chanie traveled through, including freezing rain, while wearing only a light cotton jacket provided by the school.
The Secret Path airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBC and on the network website.